As soon as I learned how to read books I was hooked. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are from the summer days spent lounging among the flowers and rosemary plants at the back of the garden devouring library books I had borrowed in town; fairy tales, mysteries, but particularly The One Thousand And One Arabian Nights which filled my young brain with exotic intrigue, murder, and love.
Yet although my penchant for reading and literature has never waned, and I still love to get really absorbed in a good book even now, unlike quite a lot of book lovers – the true bibliophiles who treasure their libraries and volumes as though they were part of their being, I rarely actually fetishize the books themselves. I much prefer record shops to bespectacled, antiquarian booksellers.
Books were quite often a cause of huge amounts of stress to me at university. More often than not it was a huge pain and inconvenience to have to read some giant French nineteenth century novel by the following Monday, some enormous tome like Stendhal’s Scarlet And Black, even cheating in English translation, which I almost always did; to have to have read all of Dante’s immense and terrifying La Divina Commedia by a certain date ( I never managed to ), or to peruse countless literarists’ critiques on one particular relatively obscure poet like Ungaretti.
For me, the feelings I have, therefore, towards books are multi-layered and ambivalent. On the one hand I remember, and love, that sensation of finding, finally, that particular rare volume you were looking for and then clasping and nudging it firmly from the library shelf. The sense of private discovery as you open the pages and the scent of others’ lived and imaginary experience is released, the cellulose and lignin gradually breaking down over the decades and centuries releasing toluene, vanillin and benzaldehydes : that familiar and beloved papery smell that is full of places we’ll go, people we’ll never meet, the yearning and excitement of being a fellow human being and feeling the excitement, and intimacy, of another’s words.
At the same time, although I love and loved the privacy and beauty of losing myself in another’s vision – that feeling when time stops its usual march and you recede into a place that’s almost beyond it; the library, with its silence, concentration and conspicuous seriousness, is a place I can find quite exasperating and oppressive. Banned from the Modern Languages library for refusing to pay the absurd fines they had levied against me, I would sometimes be forced to stray into the English department to research Virginia Woolf for my European Comparative Literature paper ( oh how that brilliant and tortured sensitive genius could pierce my soul and illuminate reality ), or else, was compelled to use the towering and ominous Cambidge University Library, deeply Orwellian – imposing but oppressive in its brown, 1940’s ugliness.
As a matter of fact, this prison-like place was where I happened to first catch sight of Duncan from from afar ( I was 22; he was 21.. ) typically, in the library cafe, because neither of us did hardly any work – we were always socializing or hedonizing in some other part of town; but it was the only part of the library I actually liked – probably because it had hot drinks and cakes ( and no books).
When I first saw him some kind of light went off in my head … ( who IS that?)….. and soon, I also by chance happened to find myself sitting next to him at one of the reading desks one boring weekday. I was trying to get his attention by fidgeting about and coughing but in those pained, furrow-browned rows of books and lamplit desks there is so much self-importance, pen-chewing contemplation and desire to look ‘intellectual ‘ going on that it’s often difficult to have any real human contact with anyone at all, let alone catch their eye.
One day, stuck at my desk there, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of books by literary critics analyzing the work of one particular writer, in their ‘own’ pedantically, masturbatory, astuter-than-thou academic posturing, I suddenly began to feel asphyxiated. The aridity of that life. The preciousness. The deadening rut of a life spent steadfastly on paper. The lack of vitality, of juice, of lust, of air, and the whole place just suddenly overwhelmed my senses to the point that I grabbed my things, pelting out of there as fast as I could and, outrageously, but adrenalized and exhilarated as a nineteen year old youth could be, uprooted three magnificent irises in the broadest of daylight that I had seen at the entrance of the building and started running for my life.
Thinking about it now, me elated and panting but out of breath and terrified in my room- the flowers already slung in a vase with some water; the strange and hypnotic black and purple scent filling my room to my ecstacy, in some ways this episode is really quite emblematic and symbolic of my life. I love books, yes, but I prefer just living ( and as it turned out, writing). Although I had the option of doing an MA in Comparative literature, with the possibility of a PHD theoretically ( in reality that would have driven me insane), in truth I knew I couldn’t stand another moment of being shut up in another soul-deafening library: my impassioned playboy year spent in Rome during my third year at university had opened my eyes: I had LIVED, had had a solidly real and wonderful year in that magical place; had made so many friends and felt more truly alive than ever before, and the concept, now of my bowing my head down in bookish concentration for two or three more years, inhaling the smell of those musty, fingerworn pages had no appeal to me whatsoever. In truth I was always, and am still, way way more excited by the scent of records; the sheen of fresh-pressed acetate and vinyl as you pull that brand new beauty from its sleeve and place it on the turntable to lose yourself in dance and music ( not that I would ever need that particular scent recreated for my body). In comparison, a library, despite its perhaps holding the key to many of the secrets to our existence that we need to unlock; the gifts of our most enlightened ancestors and predecessors: a calm and soothing place that can afford a whole lifetime of quiet pleasures, to me, in truth, a library is often nothing more than a claustrophobic, sonorous catacomb of silence and dead trees.
In this age of smartphone technology and glassed, odourless surfaces, in which we interact by screen and by mouseclick and not flesh to flesh; not in close proximity to each other, not smelling each other, not inhaling the words from an old book that rise up and connect you with the people who have come before you with the tactile scent of its paper, it is perhaps understandable that there should, now, be a whole trend of modern perfumes and candles that attempt to replicate that ambience.
I personally find all this rather ersatz and artificial, a tad Odorama, like those cinematic experiments in the fifties or whenever when the smell of bubblegum or smoke would be piped out at a particular moment in the program and the audience would gasp at the verisimilitude. Although I have on occasion enjoyed the odd scented candle or two – Diptyque’s Feu De Bois does quite nice job of recreating that ‘rug by a winter’s fire’ vibe, for example, I ultimately far prefer the warm abstraction of Japanese incense. It is what it is. The narrative is internal; it comes with what you are doing when you are ‘listening.’ I don’t need a ready made storyline; ah, now I’m in a library…..the scent itself surrounds me, one whose craftsmanship has been passed down through generation after generation, and the beautiful and contemplative atmosphere that it sets is enough to lead me to experiential association and realness.
Still, quite understandably, other people like a more literal smell to evoke feelings of intelligence and escape from the two dimensional world. They bring the library to them. They wear a chemical approximation of the library on their skin. They have fallen in love all over again with the smell of old books. To ENTER the book itself. You can light a different candle, in each room of your home, to augment and distill this chilled and present librarian effect, the binding and the covers and the translucence coming to life, In the air surrounding you, from S.T Apothecary’s Dead Writers, Oxford Library, Sherlock’s Study, Book Cellar to even Trashy Romance Novel by Frostbeard, while dousing yourself liberally in Paperback by Demeter; Paper Passion by Geza Schoen; or else In The Library by CB I Hate Perfume. You can practically bookworm yourself to death.
Bibliotheque, by Byredo, fortunately avoids the standard, bibliophilic tropes and gives us instead what to me feels more like a trendy Stockholm book cafe hangout than a library; a place you can have coffee and something sweet and delicious while lounging on some wine red leather sofas and watch the world go by through the big, daylight- loving, ceiling-to-floor windows ( with the heating set very high on the coldest of days.)
A convincingly soft suede/ woody/ leather accord that definitely evokes a comfortable room and cosy space, Bibliotheque is infused with dense, plummy goodness, and an inspired thread of violet, taking the old Lutensian Bois et.. idea but intensifying it with the modern, Byredo style. Recognizably a perfume from this house ( the density and texture is identical to Black Saffron and Baudelaire and others in the range), yet unlike most of those perfumes which I find to be too stark and strong and unpliantly direct, I find Bibliotheque more wearable and conducive.
This is a place you can just take your book and immerse yourself in it while alternating between daydreaming, watching the sky, and people watching. And in a cafe, rather than a huge, convoluted, labyrinthine library, at least, whenever you want to, you can more readily find the exit.